Art Teacher Inspires Students Through Museum Education, New Book

San Dimas High School art teacher E. Dominic Black serves as a member of the Teacher Advisory Council at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, through which he has had the opportunity to combine multiple art lessons in the form of a book called “Art Inside and Out.” Photo: Rommel Alcantara

By Joshua Bay

Grounded by warmth and goodwill, San Dimas High School art teacher E. Dominic Black enthusiastically spoke about his work for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLA). Although Black’s pursuits demonstrate his personal success, they reveal more so his character as an authentic educator.

Authentic educators possess the ability to be aware of themselves as both a teacher and learner. Black is a rarity to find because — as essential as his pedagogy, knowledge of his students and, of course, passion for art — he has the conscientiousness to create opportunities that embrace others the same way he celebrates his own identity.

“To me, the purpose of education is to inspire, enlighten and get people to feel pride in who they are and where they’re from,” Black said. “And being able to fine tune the real art of education is very exciting for me.”

A self-portrait of Black hangs in his home studio in San Gabriel, where he sits surrounded by artwork and supplies. Photo: Rommel Alcantara

Black serves as a member of the Teacher Advisory Council (TAC) for the NHMLA, an experiment that brought together a cohort of nine teachers to explore long-term museum-based educational projects, in contrast to the daily workshops already provided.

Inspired by Chicana artist and activist Barbara Carrasco’s mural “L.A. History: A Mexican Perspective,” Black created a self-portrait art lesson that celebrates one’s individual heritage and connection to Los Angeles. 

“She made this mural for the city, but they never put it up because they thought it was too controversial. There were some things included that are still touchy subjects, like Ruben Salazar getting killed during the East LA riots and the missionaries subjugating the Indians,” Black said. “But this wasn’t all of California’s history. It’s what was significant to Barbara Carrasco. And that’s the lesson I’m going towards — what’s important to you.”

Although the TAC was initially intended to cycle new teachers every year, the NHMLA decided to extend the current cohort for a second year to complete all projects with ample time. 

This gave Black the ability to create and combine multiple art lessons in the form of a book called “Art Inside and Out,” referencing both the lessons and its virtual experience.

“In other words, some of the lessons literally require you to be outside of the museum because that’s where the inspiration is coming from,” Black said. 

Black paints a canvas, inspired by lines and forms found in nature. Behind him, an overside mural covers the wall. Photo: Rommel Alcantara

From exploring color through the Nature Gardens to lines through the Gem and Mineral Collection, Black’s book teaches the seven elements of art through the lens of the NHMLA collections and exhibits.

“The fact that they have such a dynamic and special collection lends itself to almost any lesson, in art especially,” Black said. “I’ve never found anything like this, and it’s weird because even art museums don’t have a book about making art.”

Black’s book also incorporates visuals made by his own San Dimas High School art students. 

“Since I teach multiple levels, it’s great to get work from emerging artists to advanced artists,” Black said. “You look at an art history book and think, ‘I can’t do that,’ but when you look at these you go, ‘Okay, I see myself in there.’ And that’s the idea of each lesson.”

However, it’s the tie between Black’s own artwork and inclination for science that drives his passion for the book.

“My personal artwork, the focus of it for the last 6 years, has been on natural forms. Whether it’s cracks in the mud, the way lava breaks up, or even street repair,” Black said. “One of my first loves was science, and I want people to appreciate the social, natural and cultural science housed inside the museum’s building.”

Lawndale High School English teacher and fellow member of the TAC Katie Frank commended Black for creating a book grown out of empathy.

“I know his intent wasn’t to create an empathetic art book, but I think that’s represented in his work because it’s trying to connect with people of any age, and that’s valuable,” Frank said. “Sometimes we think museums are where we go with kids on a field trip, and he’s really drawn to this idea of how to make museums feel important and feel like anyone can belong in those spaces.”

Rachel Fidler, who serves as the manager for the School and Teacher Programs at the NHMLA, reflected on what made Black such an easy choice to be part of the TAC. 

For Fidler, one benefit of working with Black was her knowledge of him through other NHMLA programs such as the workshop about malacology, the study of snails and mollusks.

Much of Black’s work is based on natural forms found in geological phenomena. Photo: Rommel Alcantara

“We would walk away after to talk about his incredibly innovative, unique ideas for engaging art students in science, and I think that lens in particular is so important for all educators to consider,” Fidler said. “How we look at the world influences how we move through life, and how we move through earth, and how we feel we can protect it and feel responsible for it.”

Fidler also emphasized Black’s immense passion for the NHMLA and the positive impact he has already left beyond his work with the TAC.

“Especially right now in a global pandemic, in which teachers have had to deal with immense challenges, listening to their voices and hearing their thoughts and truly incorporating their feedback is completely required of institutions like museums that are informal learning spaces,” Fidler said. “His approach to getting students excited about things like science and art are really inspiring for the school and teacher programs team and other educators.”

Although his work at the NHMLA has played a significant role in Black’s professional career, at the end of the day, he is still an art teacher at San Dimas High School, where he has taught for more than 20 years. 

“I was friends with the son of the vice principal at Nogales High School, who said I’d be great at teaching. So I tried it and became a substitute teacher for the district. I taught all grade levels and found that I liked high school the best,” Black said. “So when an opportunity came up to move from subbing to full-time at San Dimas High School, I had to take it.”

San Dimas High School alumnus and Black’s former student Darius Johari could not help but share how Black’s mentorship and outgoing character influenced his professional endeavors. 

“I actually got a scholarship to travel with him, my first trip out of the country, to see the art and culture around the world,” Johari said. “My first trip was in Italy, and we would do on-spot location paintings. This helped me really find my love for art.”

And yet, Black’s natural flair for teaching rings true even for his own colleagues. 

A memory that sticks out to San Dimas High School drama teacher Kelly Kocalis is the time Black taught a workshop for teachers on how to use Canvas, an online learning and teaching management software.

“Canvas is daunting, and it’s not something you can teach yourself how to do,” Kocalis said. “Black taught a couple of workshops to teachers on how to use Canvas, and man, he’s really just a good teacher. He’s super patient, he can explain things very clearly, and he makes you think, ‘Wow, how could I not teach this to myself? This seems so easy.’”

“Whether it’s cracks in the mud, the way lava breaks up, or even street repair. One of my first loves was science, and I want people to appreciate the social, natural and cultural science housed inside the museum’s building,” Black said. Photo: Rommel Alcantara

Kocalis views Black as a prime example of what other educators should strive to be for themselves and for their students.

“Not only does he teach art, but he is an artist himself. He is constantly trying to show his students not just how to do art, but he talks about art as a career path; as something they might want to do with their lives,” Kocalis said. “If more people knew that teachers like Black were involved in programs like the Natural History Museum, it would really bring a respect for the arts community.”

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